Theses Doctoral

Habitation and the Invention of a Nation, Singapore 1936-1979

Seng, Eunice Mei Feng

This dissertation examines the history of housing and domesticity in Singapore by proposing public housing as the prime mover in the formulation of a national identity. In so doing, it traces the network of relations and spatial practices in the decades that span the Second World War and the country's Independence (1959), reaching back to the 1930s and the implementation of the first block of low-cost public housing by the colonial Improvement Trust in 1936, to the inception of the Island Concept Plan and the consolidation of Singapore as a Garden City by the late 1970s.

On the one hand, this dissertation attends to the architecture, planning, and propaganda of housing as instruments in the making of a public body that extends beyond the inhabitants of housing estates to the entire citizenry in post-colonial Singapore, particularly in those spaces designated for the public. On the other, it examines the aesthetic and technological extension and adaptation of the colonial apparatus, in which the intersection of architecture, planning, housing design, media and politics transformed the postwar landscapes of the city-state. This argument demonstrates, in particular, how the Modernist concern with social and urban planning, which entered British policy and propaganda and led to the incremental termination of the Empire, was employed by Singapore's incumbent government to construct housing as a national project. The circulation of technologies, methodologies, and mindsets within the Empire - between the Colony and the hinterland prior to 1959, and later between the postcolonial Nation-state and other territories (such as other Southeast Asian nations and Australia) - constitute a complex of power relations, knowledges, and institutions that were reproduced even after the demise of the British Empire, during the nation-building phase. This encompasses the policy relationships within the various national authorities and the industrial sector, such as the state sponsorship of research, development, production, maintenance, and support for the education and training of professionals (architects, planners, surveyors, and estate managers) and administrators, as well as the deployment of equipment and facilities within the national development policy. In conjunction with resettlement and town planning projects, educating the populace on the spaces and objects in the modern home, and the appropriate conduct of modern living, was also integral to the project of nationalism.

This dissertation also considers how developments in the sphere of public housing provision realigned the social relations and collective identity of a largely immigrant population. The argument advanced here proposes that the advocacy of aesthetic and societal change within the various constituencies of the Modern Movement not only affected the gathering momentum for colonial devolution in between the wars but also underpinned the policies of the socialist government in early post-independent Singapore. Specifically, the Modernist critique of social hierarchy was adopted to replace the traditional, historical-based approach, which in Singapore's case was mainly the spatial segregation of races set in place by Raffles and the colonial planners in the nineteenth century - between the colonists and colonials, and between the Chinese, Malays, Indians, and other minorities. The Second World War had also exposed the limitations of British Imperial power already on the decline. In this respect, Modernism can be read as a disruption of those systems and networks, though they were in fact closely associated with British colonialism.

This dissertation contains four main chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue. The first two chapters attempt to map public housing built upon the tropes of crisis and public improvement for which the garden city became the ultimate national project of improvement. The third and fourth chapters examine the forms and spaces of housing in conjunction with the urban renewal program and how they in turn led to in a totally planned environment in which public spaces, public discourses, and identities are subsumed. The epilogue returns to the deployment of the garden city as instrumental to the domestication of the disparate voices and identities within the public by providing a specific aesthetic for urban habitation; as well, it reiterates the crucial role of the press in disseminating and sanctioning the project.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Frampton, Kenneth B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014